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North Rockland High School Class of 1989

If it weren’t for the late Bob Murphy, John Stephens might never have laid eyes on a shot-put circle, let along become one of the greatest practitioners of that event in Rockland history. As a ninth grader at North Rockland, John had visions of going out for football in the fall – which he did – as well as wrestling in the winter, and lacrosse in the spring. But during a fall athletic fair for the school’s freshmen, Murphy, then the North Rockland weights coach in track, came right up to John, grabbed him by the haunches, and asked if he’d like to try the shot put.

“I looked at him like he had four heads,” John said of “Big Murph” Murphy, who died in 2013 after a storied career as a throws coach. “I had no idea who he was. North Rockland lives and breathes football, and he played up the idea of staying in shape for football, lifting weights, doing plyometrics. Once I tried it, I loved track from the get-go. If it wasn’t for [Murphy], I would never have gone out for it.”

When you’re 6-foot-4, 265 pounds and live in the North Rock- land school district, it’s a pretty safe bet you’ll be playing football in the autumn. John certainly made the most of his gridiron opportunities, becoming a first-team All-State defen- sive tackle and anchoring the line for one of the best teams in school history. But the lion’s share of his individual glory came from hoisting a 12-pound sphere farther than the competition, over and over again.

John won four – count ’em, four – New York State shot-put titles, indoors and outdoors his junior and senior years. It’s hard enough to win one state championship, never mind four. After the third of those, the 1989 indoor States at Cornell, John traveled overnight by bus to Annapolis, Md., to compete in the National Scholastic championships the following afternoon. He seemed none the worse for the wear, however, winning the national title with a throw of 61 feet 2 inches, not far off his indoor personal best of 61-9.

“That one was the toughest,” John said. “Just the look on my dad’s face and Bob Murphy’s face when I won … it was the culmination of a lot of things.” Besides the state and national crowns, John is justifiably proud of his back-to-back Penn Relays championships – a feat unmatched in that event until 2009.

By the time he was a senior, John’s victories seemed like a foregone conclusion. It was only a major story if he lost, but he didn’t lose the entire winter and spring. He repeated as Loucks Games champion in the shot and discus, and won Em- pire State Games gold medals in the shot two straight years, in the summers before his junior and senior years. Among his other accolades were being named New York State Sophomore Field Athlete of the Year; Bank of New York Winter Athlete of the Season; Journal-News Scholar-Athlete of the Season; and MSG Scholar-Athlete of the Week.

John ranks fifth on the all-time Rockland lists in the shot out- doors (61-10 1⁄2) and indoors (61-9) and in the discus (171-4). His highest placing in the latter event was a runner-up finish at the State meet his junior year.

North Rockland’s sovereignty in the weight events, fostered by head Coach Gene Dall and assistant Murphy, already was firmly entrenched when John arrived on the scene. But he certainly gilded the Raiders’ reputation as a throwers mecca, along with standouts like Andrew Silberstein, Phil Caraher and Mike Manno. “John was a great kid to work with,” Murphy said in 2006, when John was inducted into the Rockland County Track & Field Hall of Fame. “He listened and he knew how to listen. He appreciated everything you did for him. I’ve been blessed with kids like that.”

John, in turn, credited Murphy with finding a way to unlock each athlete’s potential differently. He elaborated on Murphy’s coaching style when interviewed for his Track Hall of Fame induction in ’06. “He approached each person individually. He knew some needed a kick in the [butt] and others needed finesse. I needed to hear things straightforward – ‘This is what you’re doing wrong.’ I respect his knowledge and experience, not only as a coach but as a teacher and person. He brings out the best in you.”

John was an honors student at North Rockland, carrying a 93 academic average. He earned a full scholarship – half academic, half athletic – to Syracuse University, where he majored in biology. He chose Syracuse over North Carolina because of the Orangemen’s highly respected weights coach, Sandy Burke, who had a good working relationship with Murphy. Early in John’s freshman year, however, Burke left Syracuse to become women’s throws coach at the University of Florida.

The coaching change stung John. But he responded in typical fashion, challenging himself in the weight room and in practice, and feeding off the intra-squad competition from such talented teammates as Tony Washington (1999 world discus champion), Steve Dering and Chris Hall. John’s highlights included Big East Conference titles indoors and outdoors his senior year, and a third-place finish in the IC4As (Easterns) outdoors. His personal best with the 16-pound shot was 57 feet.

John wanted to remain in the Syracuse area after graduating in 1993, so he took a test for the Onondaga County Sheriff’s Department in 1994 and was hired in September 1995. He rose to the rank of lieutenant and is retiring from the department with 20 years of service. John will be joining Syracuse University’s Department of Public Safety as a patrol sergeant and intends to remain with the department until his two children, Audrey, 10, and Ryan, 8, have completed college. As a Syracuse alum and employee, he will be entitled to have his children attend Syracuse tuition-free.

John, who is 45, lives in the Syracuse suburb of Cicero with his wife of 11 1⁄2 years, Vicki, a New York State court officer, and their two children. John was inducted into the North Rockland Sports Hall of Fame in 2004. “The tradition at North Rockland is tremendous and I’m proud to be a part of it,” he says.